Day 1: Stansted to Rome: The Adventure Begins

The trip began when I got out of bed at 2:45 AM, which is a tad earlier than I am used to. Because I wanted to have as much time in Rome as possible, I got the earliest flight I could. However, this meant I had to get to the airport on the earliest bus from the other campus, which meant I was up before most university students go to bed. Plus, I had that whole "wake up all the time because I know I need to be up early" thing, making it a rough night's sleep. Needless to say, I was quite tired, but the excitement of going to Italy kept me going. Well, till I fell asleep on the bus, that is.

I watched the sunrise at the airport through the huge glass walls. It's been a long time since I've watched a sunrise, and I must admit that it is a relaxing experience. The sky just kind of grows, opening up in color like a flower blooming. Heh, I guess I get overly poetic with too little sleep.

The flight was RyanAir, one of the supa-cheap airlines popping up over Europe these days. It was a pretty good flight, though I guess I slept through about 78% of it. I was awake for half of the safety talk, a glance at the Alps, and then waking up just as we approached Rome. (If you look closely, you can see St. Peter's.)

Rome is a very beautiful city from above. Way better looking than London. I guess it's all those Mediterranean tiled roofs. I could've gawked longer, but the plane landed, and I joked my way through Italian customs. After that, I got some euros at an ATM (or "bancomat" as the Italians say) and caught the bus to Termini, Rome's central station.

To be fair, London looks on the ground much like it does from the air. Rome, however, loses a bit of its charm. I don't know what the deal is, but there was trash everywhere. (Passing the shanty-town on the way into Rome didn't help much, heh.) It wasn't like the streets were never cleaned, it's just that everyone seemed to litter all the time. It boggled my mind.

The graffiti, however, was more impressive than the litter.

Everything was covered in spray-paint. I mean, that was a subway car which is constantly moving. Imagine what they do to buildings that stay put!

Instead of following the directions to take the Metro, I decided to wander Rome myself in search of the hostel I had booked. It was madness, probably, but I enjoyed the look at the Roman lifestyle. Italians are a very friendly, passionate people (a bit of a juxtaposition to the stereotypical English), and I got helpful directions whenever I needed. Speaking of stereotypes, there's the old saying that Italians talk with their hands. It's just a stereotype of course, but I did see one guy going nuts and waving his arms about while on a cell phone. Hmm.

I also saw a lot of bookshops and used book sales, which were crowded with buyers. Strangely, I don't remember ever seeing an Italian reading. Maybe they just like having big hoards of books. I know I do.

While on my wanders, I came across piazza after piazza of beauty. Rome has fantastic parks and places just to relax outdoors. Best of all, the weather was actually warm. I'd almost forgotten what the sun felt like.

Eventually, I found the place, tucked inside a little neighborhood just off the Metro and situated well among a supermarket, cafes, internet cafes, and street vendors.

It was an interesting experience staying in a hostel. Frankly, I didn't know what to expect, but I've learned that each one is a little different. This one was fairly utilitarian, with barracks-like rooms as well as a few cozier ones with fewer beds (I went for the cheap barracks, of course).

Once I got settled and my increasingly heavy bags dropped off my back, I went out touring. There were only a few hours of sunlight left, and I wasn't quite sure where to go. So, with a Jeff-like shrug of the shoulders, I boarded the Metro and got off at a place on the map that sounded interesting: Piazza Barberini. The Roman Metro was cheap, too: 1 euro for 75 minutes, which strikes me as an excellent way of doing it. If you're out for a quick errand, you don't have to spend too much.

So there's the piazza. From the tour book I borrowed from the library, it was built up by the rich Barberini family to go along with their palazzo. The fountains were done by the sculptor Bernini. He's good.

That's the Triton Fountain, and this is the Fountain of the Bees.

Bees were the symbol of the Barberini family. That's a good symbol. Industrious, yet deadly. Speaking of the dead, nearby is the Santa Maria della Concezione, the infamous church where the crypt is full of sculpture made out of the bones of monks.

It was very creepy, yet awesome. I also saw the first beggar of the trip on the steps of the church. The beggars in Italy seemed to be as ubiquitous as the street vendors. Anyway, I continued my tours with Santa Susanna.

Rome has more churches than days in the year. And almost all of them are open for viewing. And almost all of them are jaw-droppingly amazing. By the end of the trip, I was starting to get sick of seeing so many beautiful things, like San Bernardo alle Termi.

I even went to see the infamous "Ecstasy of St. Teresa", which really wasn't as graphic as Dan Brown made it out to be. Dan Brown, embellishing? Is it possible? Heh, yeah.

And then there was the Moses Fountain, where Moses stands gigantic with lightning bolts for eyebrows. (Actually, it's supposed to represent the glowing of his face.)

By the time I'd seen all this, I was pretty worn out and decided to head back. It was about rush hour on the Metro, which was quite an experience. It was as packed as London's Underground, but people actually pushed and wedged themselves in. At least I wasn't on the streets. Rome's drivers are mad, especially the motorcyclists. I can't even count how many times I was nearly hit.

But, back at the hostel, things were quieter. Most were heading out for a "unyversity event" of a pub crawl. Me, I just wrote some notes and wanted to go to bed early to catch some cool museums. (Wow, am I that nerdy? Yes, yes I am.) For food, I had some Roman pepperoni (meaning actual red peppers, not the meat) pizza, and I guess I wasn't too impressed. Actually, it was a little disappointing after all the legends and tales of truly Italian pizza I've heard. Ah, but my tastebuds were about to receive something of which they had never dreamed...

Day 2: Religiousity in Rome

I got up at 8 or so (much, much better than 2:45) and headed off for the Vatican Museum. Figuring that it would have opened only a few minutes before I got there, I thought I'd dodge most of the lines. Instead, it was already packed, and only got busier during the day. And tourist season hadn't even officially started yet.

That's the view just out of the Metro, and you can see St. Peter's. Really, you can see St. Peter's almost all the time.

Once I got my ticket, I headed inside and checked out all the wonders of the Vatican Museum (they also have at least 11 gift shops inside). And wonders, indeed. Room after room of Rafaels, majestic gardens, and more antiquities than you can shake a copy of The Iliad at.

They even had a map room. I like map rooms.

And it was such a nice day, all the windows were open. Man, the weather was just plain awesome!

Here's one of the holy parking lots. Everything is so cool in the Vatican.

Here's one of Rafael's best. All the ancient philosophers (and a few other random guys) are thrown together at the Academy. Everybody from Plato to Euclid, teaching and discussing. Socrates was yelling at Alcibiades, who was just standing there being cool.

Here's me rolling my eyes at Alcibiades. He was such a jerk, but so charismatic that we're still loving to hate him two dozen centuries later.

Here's me peeking up at the fresco commemorating the fire in the Vatican and featuring Aeneas for some reason.

And here's me with the fresco that only the pure in heart can see.

The walls and ceilings were so amazing that one almost forgot to look at the floors. Here's Achilles dragging Hector.

There was so much to look at! Seriously, my nasal passages started hurting from all the gawking. Like at this one in a room of combined Greek and Egyptian influence with cherubs beating up a crane for some reason.

Then came the Sistine Chapel. Wow. No pictures were allowed, but I hung out there, checking every detail with binoculars (I even sneaked in a second time). It was a spectacular room, but the feeling was merely overwhelming. I'd been through so many spectacular rooms that it was almost just another room. Wow, indeed. Rooms like this:

All that gawking got me hungry, so I went for some Vatican City pizza, hoping it'd be better than Roman.

It was indeed good stuff! I don't know if they had it blessed or what, but it definitely hit the spot. Italian pizza uses a more subtle sauce, and its crust is thin and crispy. It was good enough to send me out for some more looking out on patios and finish the museum's other collections of modern and ancient works.

Here's one of the famous Vatican post boxes. I have no idea why they're famous. It really makes no sense.

Eventually I saw just about everything and headed out down the museum's spectacular old staircase.

Now that's some stairs I'd like to have. But, there was much to do, and I headed outside in search of the next thing on the list: the Pantheon. It was a typical Roman day with typical Roman traffic.

Once again, the traffic was maddening. It seemed that motorcyclists didn't have to stop on red. I learned at least two new offensive gestures just by watching people communicate. Crossing the street is a terrifying experience, and I found it best just to huddle close to Italians who look like they haven't been hit before.

I walked down The Corridor, which is a street with extra walls to protect the Pope in times of military peril as he goes from the Vatican to the fortress of Sant' Angelo.

Just before crossing the river, I caught a good look at the front of St. Peter's. Wow.

The Tiber has some sweet, sweet bridges.

Along the way to the Pantheon, I saw more churches along the Largo di Torre Argentina, such as Gesu, the first Jesuit church in Rome and the Santa Maria sopra Minerva, which had an obelisk Bernini designed as a joke.

And then I came to the Pantheon itself, that huge temple that the Romans made for all the gods. It's a church now.

It's on the Piazza della Rotonda, which was crawling with tourists.

The interior, more than a thousand years older than the things I had been seeing all day, was as overwhelming as anything.

Rafael must've thought so too, since this is where he chose to be buried. Good choice for a great artist. (And my second favorite ninja turtle.)

I also saw a marble hanging made to look like cloth. Impressive skill.

With the Pantheon behind me, and my legs rested a little (I couldn't help but just sit and soak in the majesty), I headed off to check out the Piazza San Silvestro, where they're still digging up more ancient temples.

Here's one of the posters for the upcoming election. It's a huge push with tons of advertising. This one is of a Mussolini descendant running through the socialist party. Yeah, that worked great the first time, heh. There were other posters mocking the election by advertising very similarly for Homer Simpson vs. the Fonz on the Italian Fox network.

After reflecting on Italian politics, I headed back to the Vatican to check out St. Peter's.

I gawked at La Pieta for a long time.

It is indeed a very pretty statue. It made me happy.

And here's me with a 13th century St. Peter!

St. Peter's Basillica was, again, overwhelming. The sheer magnitude of it boggled the mind. I had seen so many beautiful churches in the past two days, but St. Peter's beat them all out just by being so very huge. I was fortunate enough to catch the evensong (adding it to my list of evensongs at Westminster and St. Paul's).

When I was satisfied inside, I headed out to climb the dome. Rome really is an awesome looking city.

Here's the Vatican Museums from above.

And St. Peter's Square.

And me!

The saints atop St. Peter's have wires with electric current running through them to keep the pigeons off.

What a view, what a view. Eventually I had to climb back down. Still, there were more fascinating corners of Rome to see, such as the post office.

And there were a bunch of cardinals coming in for something. They looked cool.

And some Swiss Guard! Those guys rock!

I wasn't quite sure what to make of this sign. I tried to follow the arrows, but they just ended up at a gift shop.

There were some younger guys in blue uniforms, but I wasn't sure who they were. Maybe Swiss Guard in training? I hope so.

Through my days of reading lots of crazy and random stuff, I had heard two things: that the Vatican has ATMs in Latin and that (for sake of the dress code), there were big, yellow rental pants. Regrettably, I found neither an ATM nor rental pants. It was a grave disappointment. However...

As I was dejectedly walking back toward the Metro, I decided to stop at an Italian "gelateria" or ice cream shop. Another bit I had heard about is the goodness of Italian ice cream. Though I had never really thought about it, I thought a cone sounded good. "Good" did not begin to describe the gelato.

I had mente and nutella (mint chocolate chip and chocolate-hazel-nut) flavors (it's common to have two or three scoops at a time). The tastes mingled together and made a super ice cream unlike anything else. It was so good it brought tears to my eyes. Mm, gelato.

Revitalized by the gelato, I went back to the hostel, wrote some notes, and watched a little Italian TV in the common room (it was basically MTV, Star Trek: Voyager, and Yu Yu Hakashow all dubbed). That night I went to a restaurant with some Brits from Birmingham U and a German guy who had just finished his PhD in chemistry. I had another pizza (not as good as the Vatican's, but okay), but the portions were so large that I could only eat about two-thirds before giving up.

The British guy with me (who for some reason used the expletive "crikey moses", something that boggles my mind) made a comment about being amazed that an American didn't eat everything, to which I replied that I'm really not a typical American. He then said, "We can see that by the way you actually fit on the chair." Ah, we all had a jolly good laugh at that one; me most of all.

Day 3: Romantique Rome

The third day in Rome was dedicated to hitting the ancient stuff down in the south. I headed out on the Metro, riding it all the way to Piramide. Did you know Rome had a pyramid? I must admit I didn't.

It was built as a tomb for Caius Cestius, that wealthiest of Romans who even lined the thing with marble. Nice, indeed. Nearby, there was the protestant cemetary and a park (as always), which had a cool statue, even though I have no idea what it is for.

I walked up the street from there past some perfumeries, hotels, businesses, more parks, and a gas station to the Circus Maximus. Once it was filled with thousands of screaming spectators, thunderous chariots, and beautiful statues. Now, it's just a grassy field.

Still, it does offer a good view of Palantine Hill.

From there it's just a short hike to Constantine's Arch...

...which is next to the Colosseum!

Again, it was once a huge arena where thousands cheered murderous entertainment. Here's an interesting fact: the Flavian Theatre (official name of the Colosseum) was built with booty from the Temple treasury in Jerusalem after the failed Jewish Rebellion. I didn't know that either.

Speaking of graffiti, it seems ever-present as there's some ancient drawings of a gladiator some bored spectator did almost two thousand years ago. Who would spend that much time and effort just to deface a stone?

After a morning at the Colosseum, what better to do than walk through Titus's Arch... the Forum?

Over the past couple of thousand years, lots of have changed in the forum, such as the construction of St. Francesca.

Other things are remarkably similar, such as the Temple of Romulus (well, it's been turned into a church since, but still).

I also hiked up to the Palantine Hill to see the Huts of Romulus (where Rome was first settled long, long ago), ruins of the homes of emperors, empresses (the house of Livia, Augustus's wife, is there), and a huge private stadium. Those emperors knew how to live.

Ah, the Palantine was awesome. Its gardens were in bloom, people were picnicking, and the weather was as close to perfect as I've ever been aware. I spent a long while just hanging out and soaking in the sun.

As much as I would've like to lie around all day, I liked seeing stuff more, so I hiked back down to the Forum.

The next building over was Il Vittoriano, the monument to Victor Emmanuel Monument. Its angelic chariots can be seen all over Rome. The building houses a big Italy museum, but I was too busy gawking at it to go inside.

If I ever have a monument, I'd like it to be like that.

Just down the street is the Column Traiana, one of many, many ancient Roman columns that have been capped with saints or angels. It strikes me as a thematic as well as material example of how Rome was transformed into a pagan world capital to the home of the church.

Next up was the Trevi Fountain, full of tritons and Neptune and all kinds of watery spray. The crowds around it were tremendous, as were the peddlers peddling their wares. Even the crowds couldn't destroy its magnificence, though.

While hiking up toward the Presidential Palace, I saw some Roman Polizei. They have nifty uniforms.

Up by the palace is a huge statue of Castor and Pollux, the twins who shared immortality, symbolizing... um, I don't know what it would symbolize, it's just neat is all.

That is indeed one nice Presidential Palace.

There were lots and lots of street performers (you know, those annoying guys who stand around all day in funny costumes and demand you give them money). I liked this one best.

And then I saw a whole bunch of columns and obelisks. I guess they don't serve much purpose other than aesthetic value, but, man oh man, do they have aesthetic value.

Then I came upon the Spanish Steps, which were constructed only a few hundred years ago as a solution to the steep drop from the church above. It was very crowded with tons of Italian students touring Rome.

While waiting for the mid-afternoon rush (well, they weren't rushing, just lounging) to depart, I checked out the Keats and Shelley museum.

Those Romantics loved Rome, even beyond its good weather for tuberculosis (also known as "the white death" and "phthsis" and "consumption"). I guess I can't blame them, I'm pretty romantic about it myself. Really, they did have good taste, or so the library of their apartment showed.

Across the steps is Babington's Tea Room, a restaurant founded in the late 1800s to serve all those British tourists with a proper British meal. I considered eating there, but after checking the menu, I realized it was a tad out of my price range. If only I were a ridiculously wealthy British lord... like, oh, Byron. Mm, laziness.

When enough of the crowds had departed to actually walk on the stairs, I hiked up for a view back down on Rome. Rome is good at having pretty views. Like one Italian guy told me, "Roma bella."

I had my second gelato (mente & tiramisu) and spent some time just sitting on the steps and thinking. Namely, I was imagining myself following in Byron and Shelley's footsteps into a romanticist life of hanging around writing cheesy poetry with my buddies. (I would've added Keats in there, but, yeah, no early death by phthsis.)

Eventually I headed back to the hostel and spent the eventing playing cards with some Americans and Brits. We played a game called "sevens" and a game called "castles" (they had another name for the second one, but it wasn't for mixed company...).

Day 4: Roamin' Rome

For my last full day in Rome, I decided to head off to the parks in the north, which was an area I hadn't really explored. The weather was so pretty, anything outdoors sounded great. Still, all this activity was beginning to grind down on me, and I was looking forward to getting to the quieter town of Pisa. Not before one last day seeing all I could see, that is.

Rome really is such a pretty town, despite the trash, graffiti, and odd smells (though the Tiber does smell better than the Seine, I must admit). The key is all the parks and piazzas, like Piazza della Repubblica.

I first checked out the church nearby, Santa Maria degli Angeli. It was huge and quiet and cold. There was lots and lots of marble inside, making it almost cavelike in hollowness. Still, there were cool things to see, like a zodiac chart embedded in the floor and a few statues.

After the church, I hiked up to Palazzo Margherita, also known as the American Embassy. Just as I took this picture, some guy walking by started whistling the national anthem. It made me chuckle.

The embassy's in an expensive part of town, filled with huge, sploosy-looking hotels.

The ancient Roman city wall was not too far off, marking where the city once ended, though now it's fairly close to downtown.

Because the road gets kind of crazy through the wall, there's an underground pedestrian tunnel that goes on and on and on.

I finally came back to the surface in the Villa Borghese, which is the grounds for the Borghese palace in Rome. It is one sweet park. Lots of families were out, enjoying the weather like me.

They have lots of statues and fountains.

And they even have Goethe! Even the German romantics got in on the Rome action.

Not to be outdone, yet another statue of Byron is nearby.

The grounds go on seemingly forever, till they reach a big building that I think is a presidential monument.

The gardens have nice gates, too.

With one park done, I marched on to Villa Medici (of the Florentine Medicis) and Il Pineto. They were up by the Spanish Stairs, giving them a nice view of Rome below.

Il Pineto even came with a waterclock (though it certainly wasn't as cool as the Indianapolis waterclock). Really, I'm not totally sure what the "water" part was about.

The fountain nearby made more sense.

From an overlook, one can see the Piazza del Popolo, yet another pretty open space for Romans and visitors to enjoy. I hiked down there next.

It is surrounded on each side by majestic structures. Two sides are mirrored fountains.

While another has Twin Churches of Santa Maria dei Miracoli and Santa Maria in Montesanto (though inside they look nothing alike). But, the idea of identical churches side-by-side is nifty.

And the final side has Santa Maria del Popolo (St. Mary of the People).

It had a cool statue above the door of perched saints. Unexpected, and neat.

I went for my daily gelato, but made a grave mistake. One should be careful not to get his gelato too close to touristy areas (like Piazza del Popolo), or he'll overpay for underquality gelato. One other thing: the best gelato is served with a pie-cutter-like utensil. If they use a round scoop, just say no. It takes way better on the flat scoop.

Still, any gelato is better than no gelato. With hunger staved off for a few more hours, I went to a Leonardo da Vinci exhibit where they had built wooden displays of machines from his notebooks. You could even play with them! Alas, they didn't allow pictures inside, but I did snatch one of the outdoor model of his quick-assembly bridge.

Then I headed south along the river to see Mausoleo di Augustus, where Caesar Augustus was buried. Once the most powerful man in the world rested here.

I wanted to check out the Ara Pacis and San Roco nearby, but they were very much closed. Oh well, there was tons more to do elsewhere. Following the river farther along, I came to Piazza Cavour, the man who unified Italy (whether they wanted it or not).

It's right next to the Hall of Justice, which is a very pretty building, even if notorious for corruption.

For my last big tour of Rome, I headed inside Sant' Angelo, the fortress of the Popes. It was very well designed (equal battlements, lots of internal wells, etc), and I would hate to have to lead an army against it.

According to legend, the fortress was built up after St. Michael the Archangel appeared over the spot. There's a big statue of him there now. (I'm still not so sure about how this whole sainthood of an archangel thing works.)

You can see St. Peter's from the window. It looks like a long way for the Pope to have to go in a battle situation.

After the tour, I walked slowly back, taking lots of detours, like this one to see a remnant of the fascist days.

I also went to a free exhibit of opera costumes.

At last I went back to the hostel and had one last dinner with the British kids I met. I had spaghetti, which was kind of peppery, but very tasty. We traded stories about weirdness in America and pecular British phrases. For those of you on Walker 4, the British translation of "smart is hot" would be "sharp is fit". Weirded out.

So, I went to bed that night already planning my day to catch a train out to Pisa. Oh, but there's one thing about Rome I didn't mention. The coolest thing, even. In Germany and Austria, I noticed a total dearth of water fountains. In Rome, they're all over the place!

And they run all the time, just pouring fresh, cold, tasty water. To drink, just put your finger on the bottom spout, and the pressure pushes the water into an arch at the top. But not only these little ones, you're more than welcome to drink out of the big fountains' spouts too. Just drink right out of the fountain! Hobos and businessmen alike do it.

So, when in Rome, do as the Romans do: Drink water out of the fountains. I know I did.

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